This is Part 3 of our ongoing series about Viking Age Iceland. For centuries, this island country, unique in Medieval Europe, operated with no king, no great lords, no foreign policy, and no defense forces but which developed legal and judicial systems to limit the violence of bloodfeud and protect the rights of freemen. Far out in the North Atlantic, Iceland was where the famous sagas developed. To explore Iceland’s place in the medieval world, we present selections from Jesse Byock’s Viking Age Iceland that investigate the history, archaeology, culture, systems of feud, and sagas of this magical place.
Iceland’s settlement and subsequent development is a large chapter in this story of migration. The island was discovered in about 850, or perhaps somewhat earlier, by Scandinavian seamen who had probably been driven off course. Shortly thereafter reports of large tracts of free land on the island circulated throughout the Norse/Viking cultural area, which stretched from Norway to Ireland. The majority of immigrants to Iceland were free farmers. Among them were a few small-scale chieftains who did not lead the migration but came as independent settlers.
Iceland’s medieval social order reflected the conditions of its settlement. As a culture group, the immigrants came from societies with mixed maritime and agricultural economies and brought with them the knowledge and expectations of European Iron Age economics. The absence of an indigenous population on so large an island was an unusual feature that permitted colonists the luxury of settling in any location of their choosing. As there were no hostile native inhabitants, the settlers enjoyed extraordinary freedom to adapt selectively to their new surroundings. In this frontier setting they established scattered settlements in accordance with the availability of resources. The settlers and their immediate tenth-century descendants adapted quickly to life in the sometimes hostile environment. Called landnámsmenn (land-takers) by later generations, these early Icelanders had an extremely large “founders’ effect” on subsequent social, economic and political systems. They also set in motion a type of land and resource use that by the thirteenth century was diminishing the island’s fertility. Iceland’s history is that of both people and a changing ecosystem.
— Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland